BOOK OF THE DAY in the Irish Times: Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia by David Vine Princeton University Press 259pp; £20.95
‘YOUR ISLAND has been sold,” Rita was told. “You will never go there again.”
As author and anthropologist David Vine records, “Rita felt like she’d been sliced open and all the blood spilled from her body”. Forty years later, when Rita told Vine her story, she was living still in a poor, crowded neighbourhood in Mauritius. She had buried three sons, one of a mysterious illness, another a heroin addict, the third a drunk. Her husband had died of sagren – sorrow. The wife of one of her dead sons had killed herself.
On the atoll where Rita had raised her family, before being evicted, there now stands a major US military base. Its deepwater lagoon hosts almost two dozen cargo ships, each the size of the Empire State building. The two-mile-long runway on the island hosts billions of dollars of bombers. The base houses up to 5,000 troops and support staff, and is styled as a small American town, with burger joint and bowling alley. It has been used for “rendition” of prisoners in the “war on terror”, and possibly as a detention facility. Oh, and it’s a British territory.
This is Diego Garcia, one of the tiny Chagos islands near the centre of the Indian Ocean, over 1,000 miles east of Mauritius and the Seychelles. The island’s first permanent settlers were 22 African slaves, brought there in 1783 to start a French-owned coconut plantation. Later, the islands became British territory, and a distinct creole society grew out of its roots in slavery. People were poor, and work on the coconut plantation was hard, but the environment was idyllic. “Life there paid little money, a very little,” said Rita, “but it was the sweet life.”
That was until the US military, in the late 1950s, came up with the “Strategic Island Concept”. Fearing the eviction of the US from second World War-era bases in newly independent countries, and anticipating a power vacuum in the Indian Ocean and Middle East as British power declined, strategists sought deserted islands to provide bases for future conflicts and a defensive deterrent. Diego Garcia seemed ideal. In a secret deal, the British agreed to allow an American base on the island in return for a discount on Polaris missiles.
Harold Wilson’s government hived off the Chagos islands from Mauritius and formed a new colony, the British Indian Ocean Territory, allowing them to retain the islands when Mauritius was granted independence.
Between 1967 and 1973, the Chagossians were deported to Mauritius and the Seychelles, and granted a pittance in compensation. In Mauritius, they found themselves in an unstable, newly independent country beset by inter-ethnic violence, impoverished and marginalised.
Despite the destruction of the community evident in the fate of Rita’s own family, Chagossian rights groups slowly emerged. Earlier this decade, they won a series of landmark cases in the British courts, granting them the right to return to their homeland. But Jack Straw, as foreign secretary, overturned this in 2004 by an order of the Privy Council – effectively, a royal decree – and this was upheld last year by the House of Lords (just after this book went to print). David Miliband said the government regretted the earlier treatment of the Chagossians, but had no legal obligation to pay further compensation.
David Vine’s story of the Chagossians is an exemplary piece of both socially embedded reportage and investigative journalism, despite a tendency to indulge in the self-conscious idiom of academic ethnography and reflexive criticism of US “imperialism”.
At heart, however, he speaks truth to power. Power, though, is not listening.
Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia by David Vine
Princeton University Press 259pp; £20.95